How to… not mess with e-mails


1) Always remember that…

No communication tool is neutral. As Mc Luhan said, “the medium is the message”, suggesting that meaning not only rely on the “content”, but also in what conveys it – it is not only a matters of words, but also of non-verbal settings.

We all have heard for example that in an oral presentation, what you actually says only accounts for 3% of the final impression you make. Which is why conversations on MSN can lead to misunderstandings (he was only joking but i thought it was serious and got upset, etc…). And same for email.

Indeed, although emails are now part of the “infra-ordinary” (that is, something so omnipresent in our daily life that we don’t really pay attention anymore), very few really master the “art” of sending it. It can ruin carreers or relationships – like these chinese managers whose abusive e-mails to their secretary have been sent in copy to the whole company.



2) Read…

David Shipley and Will Schwalbe, who recently released an “essential guide to Email for Office and Homeand give two explanations to the misuse of e-mails.

First, they consider that people are “not themselves”, that emails “tend to encourage the less angelic part of ourselves” cause you don’t really take time to think of what you’re writting – reproches, cold orders, moody reactions are sent before you know it.

Second idea is that there is nothing like a “universal neutral tone”: email is a very “cold” medium (McLuhan again: it is a medium where the recipient have to make up a great part of the information and context themselves, unlike a movie or face to face). So if you don’t intentionnally make it nice, it won’t be neutral, it may hurt the reader feelings.

3) Really try…

To limit wrong interpretations, the authors advise to overplay enthousiasm, putting exclamation marks, smileys, jokes, compliment or any signs of interest and niceness. Don’t just ask straightly for something. Do be polite, and even ask a more personal (but not too much) question. And don’t assume that because you know the person very well, they will understand that you just didn’t have time to be nice. Even if the person knows you didn’t mean to be rude, they could be unconsciously hurt or upset. The first principle to me would be caution: never take for granted that people will understand. They’re not in your head, they have their own fears, prejudices, weaknesses. So second principle would be empathy. Before ever sending an email, imagine you’re receiving it: how do you feel? Make the according changes.


It’s all new etiquette we got to learn – as well as on IM or social networks. New tools, new skills… but same human beings!


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